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Pourdavoud Center for the Study of the Iranian World established at UCLA

UCLA has established the Pourdavoud Center for the Study of the Iranian World, the first center in the Western Hemisphere that aims to advance the knowledge of ancient Iranian languages, history and religions.

Anahita and James Lovelace

The Pourdavoud Center was named for the late Professor Ebrahim Pourdavoud, a pioneering scholar of ancient Persia, and was made possible by a gift from his granddaughter, Dr. Anahita Naficy Lovelace, and her husband, James B. Lovelace.

“My grandfather devoted a lifetime to the study of the history, languages, religions and culture of ancient Iran. I am so grateful that Jim and I have the good fortune to be able to honor and extend the impact of his important contributions,” Lovelace said.

The mission of the Pourdavoud Center is to engage in transformative research on all aspects of Iranian antiquity, including its reception in the medieval and modern periods, by expanding on the traditional domains of Old Iranian studies and promoting cross-cultural and interdisciplinary scholarship. The center will complement UCLA’s well-established doctoral program in Iranian Studies – founded more than half a century ago in 1963 – which attracts 1,000 students from all over campus to its courses each year.

“At UCLA, we recognize that the study of ancient cultures is more important today than ever,” said David Schaberg, dean of humanities in the UCLA College. “It reveals the rich tapestry of human history and identity, and allows us to understand and uphold the highest values our forebears espoused.”

Schaberg said he was confident that the Pourdavoud Center would inspire lively intellectual and cross-cultural discussions among students and scholars throughout campus, as well as members of the Los Angeles community.

“UCLA’s location in the principal metropolitan center for the Iranian-American community is ideal for the Pourdavoud Center,” he said.

The Pourdavoud Center will host lectures, seminars, workshops and conferences. It will also provide grants to established and emerging visiting scholars to generate and disseminate innovative scholarship on ancient Iran.

The center will draw on a wealth of campus resources including: the departments of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, Classics, History, Art History, and Asian Languages and Cultures; the Indo-European Studies program; the Cotsen Institute for Archaeology; the Asia Institute; the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies; and the UCLA Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies. Moreover, extensive collections of medieval Persian manuscripts and late antique Iranian inscriptions will be available to scholars working at the Pourdavoud Center.

UCLA’s Iranian Studies program, led by Professor M. Rahim Shayegan, is home to the largest and most comprehensive doctoral program of its kind in the Americas and is the only one to cover the entire spectrum of Iranian Studies across disciplines, linguistic boundaries and periods. Its distinctive strengths are Old and Middle Iranian philology, ancient Iranian history and religions, archaeology, and the study of classical Persian literature.

“We are very grateful to the Lovelaces for providing us crucial resources to revive the study of Iranian antiquity,” said Shayegan, holder of the Jahangir and Eleanor Amuzegar Chair of Iranian Studies. “A research institute of this magnitude can have a transformative impact on the fortunes of the whole discipline, decisively reversing its decline and reinforcing its foundation.”

Shayegan, who will guide the Pourdavoud Center as it launches its inaugural year, said that the center would launch in the spring with a two-day international workshop focused on strategies to strengthen the field of ancient Iranian studies and to bolster institutional links among other centers of excellence.

Ebrahim Pourdavoud

Ebrahim Pourdavoud (1885-1968) was a dedicated scholar who pioneered the first Persian translation of the Avesta, the holy book of the ancient Zoroastrian religion. Over a span of 67 years, he conducted extensive research on ancient history and ancient Iranian languages, and trained many scholars and Iranists.

According to Shayegan, Pourdavoud profoundly affected Iranian society by resurrecting and identifying ancient Persia as a positive force for societal progress in contemporary Iran.

“The late Professor Pourdavoud greatly admired the ability of ancient Iranian universal empires to embrace diverse ethnicities, religions and languages, while allowing their individuality to thrive within a cohesive state structure,” Shayegan said. “This innate tolerance was, and still is, of great appeal, and a research center named after Pourdavoud ought to pay heed to this spirit of openness to the world.”

Lovelace, who spent the first 18 years of her life in Tehran, has fond memories of childhood visits to her grandparents’ home.

“Our grandfather would typically receive us in his study, where he spent most of his time,” she recalled. “He was surrounded by his beloved books on ancient Iran, in different languages, alongside encyclopedias, reference books, dictionaries and books on a variety of related subjects. Though a formal man, he was very warm and lighthearted at the same time. He had a wonderful sense of humor and always looked for ways to engage us, his grandchildren, during these visits.”

“I am grateful to my grandfather and my parents for giving me such wonderful early exposure to the ethos of ancient Iran. I have found this immeasurably helpful both in my personal as well as my professional life,” she said.

As for the gift to UCLA, Lovelace said that she was impressed by the caliber of the program of Iranian Studies and faculty, and that she anticipated the field would thrive in such a vibrant setting.

“With new tools for discovery and expanding opportunities for exchange of ideas, it behooves us all to work together to keep our ancient civilizations alive and relevant for future generations,” she said.

Lovelace is a clinical psychologist practicing in Los Angeles. She holds a bachelor of arts in psychology from Princeton University and a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from The University of Texas at Austin. A native Californian and graduate of Swarthmore College, James Lovelace is an equity portfolio manager at Capital Group, a global financial services company based in Los Angeles.

To learn more, please visit the Pourdavoud Center’s web site.

Digital humanities students shine a light on the history of African American filmmakers

By Jessica Wolf

While the #OscarsSoWhite controversy raged over the dearth of people of color nominated for Academy Awards this past year, a group of digital humanities students at UCLA channeled their frustration into meticulously building the little-known history of silent films made for and by African Americans in the early 20th century.

 

Photo from Within Our Gates (1919), the oldest known surviving film made by an African American director.

What they found, and sought to highlight, is that African American artists are deeply entwined in the history of filmmaking,  and can be traced back to the medium’s beginnings.

The result of their efforts is “Early African American Film: Reconstructing the History of Silent Race Films, 1909-1930,” an informational website and searchable database that tracks the African American actors, crew members, writers, producers and other artists who were making films during the silent era.

“We were venturing into pretty unknown territory and I really wanted to be a part of telling the stories of this generation of African American people and their contributions,” said Shayna Norman, who graduated last spring. “The fact that the #OscarsSoWhite controversy blew up at the same time we worked on it made this project feel even more relevant and important.”

Hands-on research

Students worked closely with UCLA Library Special Collections, combing through old journals, production notes, posters and fliers to reconstruct what was once a thriving and collaborative network of African American writers, directors, actors and producers who were making what were known as “race films.”

Relying partially on the work of historians who have unearthed documentation of these forgotten filmmakers, the UCLA student team set its parameters to include films from 1909 to 1930 that featured African American cast members, were produced by an independent production company and discussed or advertised as a race film in the African American press.

While the community was vibrant, it struggled to gain mainstream traction. In the silent-film era, productions that fit the “race films”description, like those produced by the Hampton and Tuskegee Institutes, A Trip to Tuskegee (1909), John Henry at Hampton (1913) and A Day at Tuskegee (1913), could be shown only in certain theaters, or often in African American churches, and were played to segregated audiences. Most of these films, therefore, received scant mainstream media attention. The actual film reels were not preserved in any systematic way or protected in hermetically sealed vaults, which has led to physical degradation.

Motion picture director Oscar Micheaux (center) with an actor and a possible crew member appearing in an advertisement for the Micheaux Film Corporation.

Finding forgotten films

Few films survive, though Miriam Posner, core faculty and program coordinator for the digital humanities at UCLA, was partially inspired to ignite the project thanks to the recent release of a compilation of films from Kino Lorber called Pioneers of African-American Cinema.

The scarcity drove the students.

Coming up empty on internet searches caught students particularly off guard, Norman said.

“We’re not used to that kind of obscurity, but so much of the data has been lost or damaged, is not in any history textbooks in our educational system, and is not easily searchable,” she said.

A centering figure in the students’ archival exploration was Oscar Micheaux, author, filmmaker and founder of the Micheaux Film Corporation, one of the most prominent producers of the era’s race films. He kept copious notes and records on the actors and crew members he worked with, providing much-needed fodder for the database. Micheaux’s Within Our Gates (1919) is one of the few examples of a race film that garnered some attention — and an audience — from the white press.

Making data accessible worldwide

The project exists as a perusable database on the code-sharing site GitHub that others may use, build upon and correct. The site maintains a trail of attribution to the UCLA project.

“Not everyone knows how to work with data like ours, so we also spent a lot of time building tutorials that show people exactly how to create their own network graphs, maps and other kinds of analysis using our data,” Posner said.

Capstone activities like this are extremely important in the digital humanities field because students have the best, most meaningful experiences while apprenticing on an active project, she said.

“We love the way that students and faculty come to rely on each other, developing mutual respect for each other’s skills and abilities,” Posner said. “In a lot of cases, the capstone projects like this are specifically designed to live on after the q

Poster for Black Gold, Richard E. Norman’s lost final feature. Norman was a pioneer in the development of films for African American audiences.

uarter has ended. In all cases, we ensure that we preserve a ‘snapshot’ of the work from the time the quarter ended, and that all students are credited for their work.”

Working on a project like this has made lasting impact on the students.

“We get to work on a project that leaves an important footprint,” Girma said. “That’s the amazing part of the digital humanities.” A World Arts and Cultures major, Girma said she added a digital humanities minor in her fourth year after she heard from a friend that the coursework was “life-changing.”

Norman said that she hopes to pursue a career that allows her to continue working at the intersection of entertainment and digital technology.

“I’m a media junkie and by being involved in digital humanities projects like this one, I can see how such digital research methods and skills are relevant and needed in this growing age of mass consumer media.”

LEARN MORE:
Explore the students’ research,
“Early African American Film: Reconstructing the History of Silent Race Films, 1909-1930,”on their website at http://ucla.in/2fhm3BQ

 

 

 

Watch race film Within Our Gates at https://youtu.be/h1E0NrcnwAE

 

UCLA acquires major collection of Sephardic Jewish past

Symbolic key from the 1932 dedication of L.A.’s Temple Tifereth Israel (courtesy of STTI Archive)

The UCLA Sephardic Archive has acquired one of the most significant collections ever assembled chronicling Los Angeles Sephardic Jewish history. The materials tell of the migration of Sephardic Jews to California from the Mediterranean, Middle East and North Africa at the turn of the 20th century; the shaping of Sephardic culture in Los Angeles; and Sephardic Jews’ contributions to the Jewish and urban fabric of L.A.

Marking its first major acquisition, the archive partnered with UCLA Library-Special Collections to acquire the Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel (STTI) archive, which includes a rich trove of photographs, papers, audio-visual materials and rare books dating to the mid-19th century. Many are written in the endangered language of Ladino (Judeo-Spanish), the language of Mediterranean Jews descended from the medieval exiles from Iberia.

Launched in 2015, UCLA’s Sephardic Archive is the first of its kind in the U.S. and aims to be one of the world’s largest collections—as yet unseen—of Sephardi Jewish life. An early focus will be on the local Ladino-speaking community, whose immigrant pioneers came to L.A. from modern-day Turkey and the Balkans in the early 20th century. The archive will then be expanded to include L.A.’s North African, Persian and other Middle Eastern Jewish communities.

“UCLA is the ideal institution to safeguard and steward a collection of such enormous significance,” said Sarah Abrevaya Stein, director of the archive, professor of history and holder of the Maurice Amado Chair in Sephardic Studies. “We are in L.A., which is home to one of the oldest and largest Sephardic communities in the country, and we have the world-class resources to pioneer a comprehensive and invaluable archive of Sephardic culture.”

Jerusalem rabbinate’s 1912 recognition of the L.A. Sephardic Jewish community (courtesy of STTI archive)

Most archives and libraries dedicated to preserving documents and objects of the Jewish past have focused on European Jewish histories. In contrast, UCLA’s archive will span the southern Mediterranean and Middle East. Made possible by a lead gift from the Sady Kahn Foundation with additional support from the UCLA Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies Community Advisory Board and the Maurice Amado Foundation, the archive complements UCLA’s unparalleled academic expertise and course offerings related to the study of Sephardic Jewish history.

Chris Silver, UCLA doctoral student in Jewish history and the archive’s project manager, said that the recent acquisition of the STTI archive would launch UCLA’s efforts in the most meaningful way, given its connection to the local community (the Temple is located on Wilshire Boulevard in Westwood). The STTI archive was created in 1981 and stewarded by Maurice I. “Bob” Hattem, a descendant one of the earliest founders of the Sephardi communidad in L.A. The diverse collection includes institutional records, research papers, newsletters, pamphlets, scrapbooks and newspaper clippings. The archive also possesses an impressive audio-visual collection of reel-to-reel, cassette and VHS tapes.

According to Stein, time is of the essence. “Materials held in these collections can be acutely vulnerable and at risk of being lost forever—often languishing in garages and other facilities ill-equipped for preservation,” she said. “It is imperative to collect, preserve and make them available for scholars and members of the community.”

The UCLA Sephardic Archive hopes to reverse the historic neglect of these primary source materials.

19th-century Ottoman birth certificate of a Sephardic Temple congregant (courtesy of STTI Archive)

Michael Hattem, son of Bob Hattem and member of STTI and the archive’s community advisory board, said, “The partnership between STTI and UCLA will keep the rich heritage of Sephardim alive for generations to come.”

After gathering and cataloguing the materials, Stein and her researchers plan to create a visually rich and historically informative interactive exhibit available online to users all over the world. The digital exhibit will be accompanied by a temporary physical exhibit at the Sephardic Temple featuring items drawn from the STTI archive and marking the community’s centenary anniversary. Finally, the archive will serve as a research resource for UCLA graduate students writing their dissertations on related topics and for community members interested in learning more about their past.

To learn more, please go to the archive’s webpage.